The Arts of Business: Brooklyn Start-Up Sells Notebooks, Donates Profits to Arts Classrooms

Public Supply's mission statement is perfectly simple:

  • Create the Best Writing, Art, and Office Essentials
  • Support the Creative Arts In our Schools

The four-man Brooklyn start-up has only been around for a few months—its web site went live in June, 2013—but the impact of its philanthropic mission has been evolving at a dazzling rate. The web site declares that 25 percent of the company's profits (mostly derived from selling handsome, limited-edition notebooks) will be donated to needy creative arts projects in New York's cash-starved public school system. But that goal is already history. As of this writing, Public Supply has been donating a cool 100 percent of its profits, although that will eventually change.

Elegant. Minimalist. Four Colors. Limited Edition.

The web site, as elegant and minimalist as the notebooks themselves, tells the story. You'll find the mission statement quoted above. You'll find at least four colors of striking, post-modern-looking notebooks you can order (along with classic hex pencils). You'll find a list of the classrooms currently receiving funding from Public Supply, including specific projects, needed supplies, even teachers' names and the occasional sweet thank-you note. (Students at Ms. Parr's classroom at PS 76 in the Bronx received two xylophones, five boomwhackers, and four djembes.) You'll find a photo gallery showing Public Supply's products at work. And you'll find a fascinating journal that documents how the company's cash contributions are at work too. It includes working notes from art teachers in the public school system, along with communiques from the four co-founders of Public Supply: Russell Daiber, Leigh Salem, Adam London and Brian Smith. 

College Pals

According to Russell (whose responsibilities at Public Supply include marketing and branding) the four co-founders—all slightly shy of 30 today—met mostly at college: some at Dartmouth, and some at Columbia University Architecture School. Oh, there were some additional meetings in San Francisco just after they graduated from college.

"We had been kicking ideas around," Russell recalls, "coming at it from the product side, and eventually we decided to flip it around and find an issue we all care about to focus on. It ended up being art in schools, and the product and aesthetic grew from there."

How do you start a business without outside funding? You dig down into your own pockets. And you drop off outgoing shipments at the Post Office yourself. Russell, Leigh, Adam and Brian each made a personal investment in Public Supply and opened an office in Brooklyn's DUMBO district. (The acronym does not refer to a flying elephant; it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.)

Even the Packaging Is Hip

Are the products cool? Coming from Brooklyn? Sheesh!

Leigh and Brian did the design—and the packaging too. "The notebooks have a unique look," says Russell. "They're also really high quality. They're produced in New Jersey, and we made sure to actually touch all the different kinds of paper, looked at a couple of different processes for having the covers produced. We were going for a combination of a simple, timeless design and an unusually high-quality finish."

Even the packaging is hip. There's more logistics than you would think in the whole packaging and shipping side of things, according to Russell. "A lot of people have actually been taking pictures of the packaging," he says. "We did spend some time on it. You open up the box and there's a very nice package inside."

Creative Alternatives

When your operating funds come from your personal bank account,it's only natural that you might focus on sales. "We're selling the notebooks online, at our own site," Russell explains. "We're selling some at retail stores like McNally Jackson, a small bookstore in New York City. And we're going to be selling on some other sites, like Roozt. We're still figuring out what are the best channels for us."

Public Supply is not limited to retailing to individual customers, however. They're also exploring the possibility of selling larger runs of 500-1000 notebooks to companies that care about social responsibility. "Design firms, law firms, places like that that need these supplies. We've been working with them to customize the notebooks so they can have their logo on the cover, or a piece of artwork they feel communicates their brand. They can give them away to clients, or use them internally, and we'll work with them to choose a classroom to fund that's going to resonate with their employees or the people who will be receiving the notebooks as gifts. We've done a couple of custom projects already."

They're also looking into creative alternatives, planning for a big marketing push at the end of Summer 2013." There are some Brooklyn-based, New York-based brands that are committed to developing creative arts and creative thinking for students, and making sure that they continue to be a component of public education," says Russell.We're hoping to build partnerships with these brands where we can collaborate on design, and develop some publicity around those products."

Wading Into the Conversation

So far, most of the marketing for Public Supply has been DIY. The co-founders have done some outreach to friends and families, and now they're tip-toeing into social media.

"Social media provides a way for us to listen in on a conversation about education in New York that's already taking place," says Russell. "It's a big, complex issue, and there are a lot of passionate, smart people who have devoted their lives to it, and are having an ongoing conversation. Social media is a way for us to wade into that conversation, and get perspective on the best way for us to make an impact."  

It's no accident that Public Supply shares its PS initials with Public School; the co-founders are seriously committed to addressing funding issues within New York City's public school system. (They partner with the highly respected DonorsChoose to allocate donations.) A2011 study by The Center for Arts Education stated that funding for art supplies, musical instruments, and equipment in public schools declined by almost 80 percent since the 2006-2007 school year.

"In many cases teachers are buying these art supplies out of their own pockets," Russell says. "That statistic is two years out of date, but it doesn't feel like that trend has reversed."

Public Supply is conscious of needing to strike the right balance between making great products and making sure the company is devoting enough thought, energy and money to supporting schools and other educational stakeholders. "Finding that balance has been delicate," Russell observes.

About Sharing

"There was a lot of satisfaction when the web site went live and we could see orders rolling in," he continues. "There was never any doubt in our minds that the business model was a good one; the opportunity to buy some nice products and also donate to arts education in the schools—that's a no-brainer.

"The business owner at my last job used to say, 'It's not about selling, it's about sharing.' You don't want it to be just a financial transaction, you want it to be sharing something that's going to improve both people's positions." He laughs. "Of course it still has to be proved out. But it's been a great anchor for us. We have the pieces in place. Now we have some hard work to do to make the company grow."

 

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